Wych barges and salt cargoes

It’s been a busy few months. In July, I visited Margaret Rowley, who holds the Max Sinclair archive of canal related photographs and ephemera. Max’s son Iain and fellow Ring artist Heather Wastie joined me and we looked through an amazing collection of images. I was fascinated by the images of industrial Droitwich, with Vines Park covered in Victorian industrial buildings (saltworks). I also saw images of the ‘wych barges’ or trows that used to travel on the canal, moving salt from Droitwich to the docks at Gloucester and Bristol for onward travel. There was even a drawing of the special designs of the boats which made me realise how unique these vessels must have been and what a sight it would have been to see boats with sails along the inland waterways of England. The wych barges were a special type of trow, which had a tabernacle mast, so they could pass under the bridges of the canal, but also have a sail rigged to assist their passage. They could sail the river Severn out to sea and even across the channel.

Image: (left) drawing of a Severn Trow (wych barge) from Max Sinclair’s archive, courtesy Margaret Rowley (right, top to bottom): Saltworks from Dodderhill (now Vines Park), courtesy Paul Jones; Wych Barges on Severn, from Max Sinclair’s archive, courtesy Margaret Rowley

Later in the same trip, I met Paul Jones, a local historian and photographer. He showed me his collection of digitized photos some of which he had collected from the archive of a local women called Nelly Copson, who he had known well and who had told him many stories about Droitwich. The photographs included the Saltworks in Droitwich, salt workers, and the salt products packed up for sale and transport in many forms. It was hard to believe how many people’s lives were tied up in making salt.

Image: Salt workers, and salt packers. Photos courtesy Paul Jones

In October, I visited the monthly meeting of the Droitwich Arts Network where I presented my work in progress for The Ring and also carried out my specially designed salt-themed pub quiz, the ‘Brineteaser.’ This went down well with the D.A.N. members, and a serious attitude was made towards winning, although there were a few giggles when I asked them to guess the origin of the proverb: “Eternity makes room for a salty cucumber.”*

Image: Katy reading out quiz at Parks Cafe

Meanwhile, I’ve been at work in my studio in Brighton, experimenting with salt. I’ve been making salt blocks and forms and also placing different objects in salt solution to see what results. The results are often unexpectedly beautiful. Over time, crystals form, transforming the original object.

Image: Salt crystals in my studio

As I’ve been developing my idea for the Ring next year all this research has combined to form a proposal, which I have now had the good news has been accepted. The final artwork will be event-based, taking place over a series of events in Spring/Summer 2018 which coincide with local festivals. The event will begin with a Canal barge journey from Gloucester Docks to Droitwich, arriving in Vines Park, Droitwich at the St Richards Canal Festival. This journey, using a heritage working boat, will re-enact in reverse the last journey of a wych barge along the Droitwich canal, which according to Max Sinclair took place in 1916, carrying hayricks for the army in France.[1] ‘Bow hauled by men chanting sea-shanties, she was loaded at Mildenham Mill with two hayricks commandeered by the army for feeding horses in France.’[2] 2018 is the 45th anniversary of the start of the restoration of the Droitwich canals, and 100 years since the end of World War 1,[3] and St Richard’s festival will also be celebrating of the life of Max Sinclair.[4]

The barge will be loaded up with salt from all over the world at Gloucester Docks, and then when the salt arrives at Droitwich it will form part of a salt pavilion which along with the newly produced Droitwich salt becomes part of an International salt collection. After the event, this display will be taken to the Salt Museum at Droitwich Heritage Centre where it will be on display over the Summer. In September 2018, as part of Salt Fest, the salt pavilion will return to Vines Park and be loaded back onto a barge for its farewell journey. As part of the project I will be making a film of the journey and a special limited edition map of the salt connections to and from Droitwich, both past and present. I’m looking forward to next year and seeing all these plans come together…


*It’s Russian, if you were wondering.

[1] Jon Axe ed., ‘The Story of Droitwich salt and James Brindley’, The New Wych (Droitwich Canals Trust, 2002), p.27; Jon Axe and Max Sinclair, A Guide to the Droitwich Canals, 2nd edition (Droitwich Canals Trust, 2001), p.55; Max Sinclair also refers to this story in his brief history of the Droitwich Barge Canal at: <https://worcestervista.com/index.php/boats/droitwitch-barge-canal/&gt;

[2] Jon Axe ed., ‘The Story of Droitwich salt and James Brindley’, p.27; Jon Axe and Max Sinclair, A Guide to the Droitwich Canals, 2nd edition, p.55

[3] <http://www.strichardsfestival.co.uk/about-st-richards/&gt;

[4] <http://www.strichardsfestival.co.uk/about-st-richards/&gt;

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Droitwich Salt Works

Over the past 2 years, I’ve been writing up my PhD thesis about the work I’ve done on salt and its stories. I’ve nearly finished the full draft and am planning to submit at the end of the year, and in the meantime I’ve continued to create new artworks, some salty and some not.

Earlier this year, I was asked to undertake a new public art commission in Droitwich, based on its history as a centre of salt production dating back to pre-Roman times.


The project is part of ‘The Ring’, a series of new arts commissions and projects funded through the Canal and Waterways Trust around the ring of canals and rivers that link Droitwich to Birmingham and Worcester. Salt used to be transported by canal to other parts of the country and to the docks for trade. I am excited to find out more about the salt trade and production in Droitwich and the links made to other parts of the world, as I develop ideas for the artwork.

I began with meeting some local experts and visiting the archives in Worcester, The Hive, where I located maps of the area in the late 19th century which show the density of Salt Works in the Vines Park area of the town, as well as photos of the old salt barges and salt workers.

Over the summer I will be continuing the research process and making a proposal for the art work, and for my next stage of research I’ll be hosting a pub quiz called ‘The Brineteaser’ in Droitwich as well as walking the canal along the old ‘Salt Straets’ or salt ways.

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Mapping salt

I’ve started to write up and whilst doing this I’ve been making a series of maps in the studio which range in scale from a market to a city to a region, and describe the journeys I’ve made in search of salt.


The first map describes the journey through Portugal to salinas.







imageThe second map is a journey around Lisbon, carrying the salt  and saltwater between locations.









The third map is a map of Brixton market reimagined as a salt pans, surrounded by water. It records where I’ve found saltfish for sale in the market. I like the idea of turning Atlantic road back into the Atlantic Ocean.


then I began to play with adding salt to maps, and working with the material qualities of the salt as a drawing material. The salt becomes alchemical, the map distorted and the surface crystallises with tiny  grains of salt.

























(All images and artworks copyright Katy Beinart)

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Goute Sel

My link to Haiti from Brixton is a shop in Brixton Market selling ‘spiritual products’. I made a proposal for the 3rd Ghetto Biennale in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to research connections to salt in Vodou, the national religion, which also doubles up as a cultural conduit and way of life for many Haitians. In Kreyol, the national language, there is a saying ‘Zombi pa goute sel’: Zombies do not taste salt, as the salt wakes them up. I had read about (and tried out) salt being used in protection and cleansing rituals for people and spaces. And I had heard of ‘Goute Sel’ in another context, one of a political awakening: it was the name of a literacy program ran by Ti Legliz, the liberation theology movement of local churches which educated and radicalised the peasant population in the 1980s, against the Duvalier dictatorship.goutesel1

On my way to take part in the 3rd Ghetto Biennale: ‘Decentering the market and other tales of progress’, I learnt about Haiti’s role in global markets, first as a slave colony, later as an independent state and now its role as a labour market to the US (Haiti produces US military uniforms, in a free-trade zone where workers are paid below minimum wage). One of the most brutal colonial regimes in the Caribbean once existed here, and this history was also tied up with salt: ‘the first French colonists were preoccupied with the natural salt marshes, which could be found on the coast of Santi-Domingue (Haiti). They prepared the salt and bartered it with the English for other goods. Their main establishment was created at the mouth of the Artibonite river, in a location called Grande Salines.’1

On arrival, I planned to try and track down the location of Grande Salines, and the remnants of Goute Sel, if I could. Meeting the Atiz Resistans artists at the Gran Rue, where the Ghetto Biennale takes place, and the other artists who had come from all over world for the event, relationships and negotiations began to develop, and other debates over markets. The Haitian artists make work for an art market which is hard for them to access, but many of the non-Haitian artists were doing socially engaged, ephemeral, or performative work which did not have a market-value as such. Placing such work in this context, and negotiating over its making, meant for me a process of reflecting on how it would be perceived. In John Akomfrah’s ‘The Unfinished Conversation’, Stuart Hall describes how placing himself into the context of Oxford University, he ‘had to go through it’: by being in a place where he could never fit in completely, he was forced to consider more intensely his own identity. Juxtaposing these different approaches and types of art practice into the Gran Rue sharpens the need to question intentions and perceptions of artworks.

IMG_2978As I began to learn the art of making Veves, a Vodou ritual in which patterns are drawn onto the ground with cornmeal, I asked the Haitian artists I was working with their views of making these as a part of a performance. Mabelle said she had only ever made a Veve before when the spirit was in her. Papada, the local Vodou Houngan (priest) and an artist as well, said I needed to be aware of the spiritual requirements: he would need to introduce and bless each Veve, and I couldn’t use salt. When I explained my personal ancestral links to salt, he said in that case it would be okay with the spirits. I think at this point I realised that we were complicit in the ersatz theatricality of this invented hybrid ritual-performance. There was an tacit acknowledgement, which I found interesting considering my role as outsider western artist, that this was about the creation of a spectacle for the audience. It then became about a negotiation of authenticity, wearing the Mambo dresses, wearing or not wearing shoes, silence, control, the perfection of the Veve symbol.

IMG_2989Having found rock salt in the Mache Solomon in town, I was determined to go to Grande Salines, and managed to recruit about 8 other people to come in a hired minibus. What followed was a very long and bumpy ride, several detours and our eventual arrival at a dusty, godforsaken outpost. There were salt pans though, and a man gave me a guided tour. I think everyone else was glad to just jump in the sea. It was strange to imagine the French arriving here a few hundred years ago and seeing this as a 

IMG_3008golden opportunity, and that the pans are still going, despite salt now being sold in the market for a few gourdes. I got my sack of salt and we drove back, and with the help of the ladies of the Gran rue (and one gentleman) made some small sacks emblazoned with ‘Goute Sel’.


I had a fruitless couple of days searching for the Goute Sel text. Driving around Port au Prince from the National Archives, the building still being rebuilt and everything in boxes, to a cartographic office that couldn’t be found, and a charity that didn’t want to know, I thought about the absence of things. In Port-au-Prince, a city recovering from a devastating earthquake but also years of underdevelopment, some things are very much present, and others are absent. Aid agencies and government slogans are on show, hoardings promising rebuilding, reused USAID sacking covering broken buildings. No one seemed to know about Goute Sel, and no one seemed to want to talk about that part of Haiti’s past. In the end I decided to recreate a page of Goute Sel, an invented page of translation that linked salt in Vodou with the power of waking up through education, a quote from Paolo Friere. This became a part of the performance.


So after practising several times and trying on our Mambo dresses, myself and Mabelle created a twin Veve in Papada’s yard, on the opening day of the Biennale. The yard was packed with people and we had to swing our skirts carefully to avoid wiping out the careful work. We had to wait half an hour for Papada to bless the yard and perform the Veve first, and I felt the slowness of making the pattern as our audience watched and the drummers played and Papada sang. But it felt right that the Veve we made was to ‘Kafou’, the spirit of the crossroads. Haiti is a country at a crossroads, and has been for a centuries a crossroads of trade, migration, journeying. It has a troubled and difficult history, but it is also one of finding identity, an identity which mixes cultures and keeps adapting. It’s a place which gets under your skin, and asks to to think about the skin you are in.

Afterwards, someone told me that one of the Haitians thought I was a real Mambo and that they saw the performance as a Vodou ritual, not an artwork. In my complicity with the others in creating the spectacle, I was accidentally transformed into the authentic article. Can I be (in Hal Foster’s terms) both an artist as ethnographer and become the subject of the ethnography? Both the tourist gazing and the subject of the tourist gaze? Or is this what George Marcus defines as ‘complicit engagement’, in which there is an acknowledgement of collusion in the act of creation? Working in the Gran Rue, some things get lost in translation, but perhaps what matters is the intention of finding a language that can be interpreted in multiple ways, and still hold meaning to all.



1History of Haiti, Steeve Coupeau 

Foster, Hal (1996) The Artist as Ethnographer. In Doherty (2009), Situations. Whitechapel Gallery/MIT press

Marcus, George (1997), The Uses of Complicity in the Changing Mise en Scene of Anthropological Fieldwork. In Doherty (2009), Situations. Whitechapel Gallery/MIT press


 Peter Hallward, 2008, Damning the Flood, Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment.

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Poetics and Politics of Salt

At the opening of my exhibition in Lisbon, a woman I am chatting to tells me she liked the work, and it reminded her that Pessoa was initially pro-Salazar (the long-time dictator of Portugal) as he thought the man was ‘salty’ by name and therefore ‘salty’ by nature – which is a good thing. However later he realised that the regime was indeed the other meaning contained in Salazar’s name, that of ‘azar’ meaning bad luck. Interestingly when I put Salazar into google translate, I got ‘salt gambling’. I found that Pessoa had in fact written a poem about Salazar’s name, which I also google translated:

Este senhor Salazar

E feito de sal e azar.

Se um dia chove,

A água dissolve o sal,

E sob o céu

Fica só azar, é natural.

Oh, c’os diabos!

Parece que já choveu…1


This Mr. Salazar

And made of salt and gambling.

If one day it rains,

The water dissolves the salt,

And under the sky

It is just bad luck, it’s natural.

Oh, Holy shit!

It seems that since it rained …

My next trip is to Haiti, based on the shops selling magical and religious charms in Brixton Market, one of which has a twin shop in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I started to do some research on Haiti, in advance of my trip there in December to research the cultural connections of salt and participate in the Ghetto Biennale www.ghettobiennale.org

As I searched for images of Haiti, I saw a statue of Jean-Jaques Dessalines, and was intrigued by his name. He turns out to have been the top lieutenant in Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolutionary army that overthrew the French and was then the first rule of the independent Haiti. The town of Dessalines in Haiti is named in his honour. What was curious is again I put ‘dessalines’ into google translate and came up with ‘desalinate’. So whilst Salazar was gambling with salt, bad luck for Portugal, Dessalines was desalinating Haiti…


My proposal for the work in Haiti is based on the poetics and politics of salt in Haiti. I plan to try and track down a newspaper and literacy programme called Goute Sel – A Taste Of Salt, which existed as an educational resistance to Duvalier’s regime. This idea of salt ‘waking up’ or liberating people from exploitation and degradation connects to the Vodou role of salt as awakening zombies from the dead. Therefore I’ve started to explore Vodou and came across the following recipes in a book called Voodoo and Hoodoo by Jim Haskins:

To cause confusion:

Take graveyard dirt, salt, and devil powder and mix them together. Sprinkle that mixture around the interior of the person’s home.

To make someone go away:

As the person leaves your house, sprinkle a teaspoon of table salt in his trail. Take you broom and sweep the salt out of your home, calling his name (quietly) and wishing that he not return.


Mix salt with wine and make him drink it. Pray as he is drinking that all foreign substances will be expelled from the body. The person will shortly vomit.

Salt sprinkled throughly about the house and especially in the fireplace.

Luck in business :

Before going to the interview, place 3 grains of salt in a handkerchief and put it in your pocket. When you get to the place of employment wait until you are alone or the interviewer is somehow distracted. Then throw the salt onto the north corner of the room. Within 3 days you will have the job.




Haskins, James, (1978) Voodoo & Hoodoo. Scarborough House: Lanham (reprinted 1990)

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Salted paper printing

For some time I’ve been reading about the earliest type of photographic printing, made using paper soaked in salt, which was then painted with silver nitrate and exposed to the sun (with a negative, making a contact print). While I was in Lisbon, I wanted to try and make salted paper prints using images I’d taken of salinas in Figueria, Aveiro and Rio Maior. The images felt out-of-time, and I felt that using this process would echo that sense of the past and present layered within them. In fact, the process of making the images became about many things, including obsolescence, communication, language, regulation, and travel.

After discussing the idea with Fabrice at Fabrica Braco de Prata he took me to kameraphoto, which turned out to be a digital printing laboratory. Having explained the process I wanted to use they said they only used digital now, and sent me to Lisbon Photographic Archives. Meanwhile, I found my own way to Colorfoto, lisbon’s only source of photographic chemicals (that I could find, anyway) and asked about the chemicals I needed. They couldn’t help with the silver nitrate but a guy in the queue sent me to Camilla Watson and her magical darkroom and studio in Mouraria.

IMG_2582IMG_2650On my third visit to the archives I got hold of Luis Pavao, who was a wonderful source of information about the salted paper process, having tried it himself, but also full of warnings of its problematic nature. From a website, I found that you could buy silver nitrate pens in chemists so I had bought a couple of these – apparently used to cauterise wounds and baby’s bellybuttons – but Luis looked at them kind of fascinatedly and then told me where to purchase proper silver nitrate, from a nondescript chemical company in Av. Dom Carlos. I went there and had to sign various forms, in an old office complete with old chemical jars, and I finally received the precious brown bottle. I won’t even go into my multiple walking tours of lisbon, in search of the right kind of paper.


Trying to source things, I feel I am in the shoes of my great-grandparents again, arriving in strange places, not understanding the language, the way things work like the times of day things are open or closed, the procedures, the rules, the expected behaviours. Going into the Nigerian-run photocopy shop, they give me directions in French purely by landmarks – which I don’t know. I am constantly getting lost, negotiating public transport, using paper maps, as my location services uses up the battery on my phone. This obsolete process I am trying to recreate makes me more aware of the technologies of travel, of journeying, of translation, that we take for granted; how quickly we become helpless without it. Reading Camilla’s copy of The Silver Sunbeam, a book published in the 1860s about the then new technologies of photography, I am drawn backwards in time, and amazed by the careful and thorough detail of the explanations.

Camilla Watson is an unusual figure in Lisbon – an Englishwoman, she has lived and worked in the Mouraria area for years, her studio producing images of Lisbon that are hand-printed on walls, boards, anything she finds. The walls of the district have become a record and celebration of its inhabitants. Using the studio, I love the way people come in and out, and sit and chat in the square outside. I meanwhile have gloves, eyemask, surgical gown and am soaking pieces of paper with salt, drying them, then painting them with the highly dangerous silver nitrate, all in darkness.

Chemical processes, fabrication processes, changing states, is the work in the making or the connections that happen through the making? And is it in part the journeys in space/time to make the making, that develop an understanding of place? So the ‘artwork’ is in part a vehicle for the other/research? The artwork contains these journeys and connections. The process is represented by an ongoing and changing artwork.


The first test works – I expose the paper in the sunny square outside the darkroom with kids playing and a man washing in the fountain. Images appear, faded brown, indistinct, an index of memory. I repeat the process with large sheets and huge, ghostly salt-piles take shape. There are splashes and discolourations. To me the imperfections serve to tell the story of the making of the work, and seem appropriate to the salt-making processes I documented, which sits between now and then, here and there.


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Fish Markets and Flea Markets

IMG_2583I went to the Mercado De Ribiera, Lisbon’s oldest indoor market, around midday on Friday. Some of the stalls were packing up, but the cavernous space was half-empty, anyway. A couple of stalls sold bacalhau (salt cod) alongside products imported from Brazil and West Africa familiar to me from Brixton market stalls. Many of the fresh fish stalls were closed, and the piles of polystyrene crates nearby the open stalls had labels from Norway and the other Scandinavian countries. Markets change, supply changes, demand changes. The oldest reference to a Lisbon Market dates back to the 13th century, and there has been one in this spot since 1771. Once upon a time, fish was unloaded directly from the fishing boats at the dockside to this market.


The first document related to cod-fishing is dated 1353 and refers to a treaty between Portugal and England governing Portuguese fishing in the North sea. The Newfoundland cod fishing routes emerged at the beginning of the 15th century, as Portuguese explorers opened up the territory for fishing, and by the mid 16th century, 60% of all fish eaten in Europe was cod, and would remain so for the next 2 centuries. This diminished after Spain annexed Portugal, and after long wars with the English over control of fishing territories, but Portuguese salt was still seen as essential to the fishing trade and in 1830 the trade revived, with ships setting off with their salt supplies from Aveiro, Figuiera and Lisbon, catching and salting the fish on board, and bringing it back to be dried on open air racks – a complete circle. The white fleetUnder Salazar, the trade was promoted and expanded and the annual departure was an important event, with ‘dozens of ships painted white and bedecked with flags, receiving the blessing of the church’. This rather beautiful and sad Canadian documentary made in 1967 gives an idea of the trade as it was only 50 years ago.

The White Ships (A Frota Branca) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaXl6m85dOY

I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s new book, The Faraway Nearby, which starts out: “stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them…a place is a story, and stories are geography.” The relationship between stories and places, stories and architecture seems to be reciprocal, in that architecture, and place, contains narratives. The structure, space and layout of the Mercado de Ribeira acts as a relic of times past, of a particular moment of supply-demand-trade not just locally in Lisbon, but globally. So the architecture is a memory, and a narrative, but how legible is it? Can we read from this structure past attitudes to trade and migration? And how does it adapt to the present? Like Brixton Market, it is trying to reinvent itself, the top floor now hosting evening events and a Saturday ‘craft’ market attracting a different crowd.


The next day, I went to to the Feira da Ladra market, which is also centuries old, with stalls and cloths laid out on the ground selling all manner of objects old and new. The hustle bustle here was in marked contrast to the Ribeira market, with locals, tourists, migrants, and dealers dealing and just looking. I find old maps of Salinas in the Rio Tejo area, and a leaflet from Aveiro. The maps, which dated to 1898 and 1902, show lots of Salinas along the Tejo, near to St. Iria and Samouco. There are still Salinas at Samouco, now a nature reserve, but the Santa Iria area seems mostly to be motorways and industrial areas today.


The physical space of the markets, and the physical space of the salinas, seem to be remnants and remains, traces or residues. Like the objects for sale in the Feira da Ladra, many of which are now obsolete reminders of past technologies we no longer use. Remains exist also in language. The origin of Salt, the greek work Alas, was initially Als, meaning sea. The Latin Sal is an anagram changed to ease pronunciation. Words which originate from Alas/Sal include Salary/Salario, from the Latin Salarium; Saldo (Portugeuse, Italian and Spanish) meaning balance, bargain, sales; insalata or salad, sausuage (salami, salciccia, salsicha), sauce (salsa, saltsa); and more. The telephone directory of the Lisbon metropolitan area contains 412 people directly named after salt-making and salinas. As Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘Stories migrate, and meanings migrate.’


Kurlansky, M, (1997) Cod. Vintage: London

Neves, R, Petanidou, T, Rufino, R & Pinto, S (2002) ALAS – All About Salt: Salt and Salinas in the Mediterranean. Tipografia Cruz e Cardoso, Lda.

Solnit, R (2013) The Faraway Nearby. Granta: London


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